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Nyack People & Places: John Lyon, Hudson’s Oldest River Captain

by Mike Hays

“A-l-l A-b-o-a-r-d” was announced so loud that it could be heard from the ferry landing to the top of the Nyack hills. John Lyon, matching the river’s loudest voice to the river’s shortest pilot, worked on the Hudson for 72 years without ever missing a day of work. Lyon, all of 5 ft tall, was known in his later years for his silver hair and goatee and a large gold vest pocket watch on a gold chain.

He knew commuters, millionaires, politicians, judges, and everyday folk on board the Rockland Nyack-Tarrytown ferry.  In its banner years, automobiles would be lined from the Burd St. dock up to Broadway and down to Hudson Ave. The ferry was packed and Lyon would collect money, leaning into the car window, holding a fist of bills in his left hand behind his back.  The departure bell, Lyon’s “All aboard,” the churning of water against the pier as the ferry named Rockland got underway, and the sight of Hook Mountain from mid-river was an experience few forgot.

The 72-year River Career of John Lyon

John Lyon was born in Glasgow Scotland in 1834. His family immigrated to the US in 1849, ending up in Haverstraw. By the age of 17, he was working as a cabin boy on the Nyack-built Arrow, running from Albany to NYC. After Arrow burned, it was rebuilt as the George Washington in 1853, and Lyon worked under Captain Jacob O’Dell of Tarrytown. Later, the ship was renamed Broadway under Captain Frost of Nyack, and Lyon worked as a purser. The Broadway burned with loss of life at the foot of 13th St. in NYC in 1866. Lyon continued to work under Captain Frost on the Isaac Smith and then the Adelphi, running from Haverstraw to NYC. In 1875, Lyon was hired by the Smith Brothers of Nyack to manage the river-side Smithsonian Hotel. In 1879, he returned to steamboats for good, running the Nyack-Tarrytown ferry until his death in 1923.

Detail of Nyack waterfront from the 1884 Burleigh map. #19 is the Smithsonian Hotel. The building to the left of the ferry dock is the clubhouse for the Nyack Rowing Association.

In 1860, Lyon married Jane Jones of Haverstraw. The couple moved to Nyack when Lyon began working at the Smithsonian Hotel. They had 2 daughters and a son. Jane died in 1895 of pneumonia, shortly after which Lyon moved out of their First Ave. home to live with his daughter. His son, Walter, was injured in a bob sled accident in 1904. Walter and 4 other boys crashed into rocks at the foot of Burd St. Walter broke his leg. In October 1906, Lyon’s granddaughter, Sara Louise Gesner, married Louis Robbins in Nyack. They were driven to the ferry in a friend’s auto where Lyon made a special trip to convey them to Tarrytown.

In 1918, when the Rockland was out of commission one afternoon due to a mechanical problem, Lyon managed to get across to Tarrytown at 6p to pick up 5 commuters who would have had no choice but to return to NYC and then take the train to get to Nyack. Wilson Foss, a millionaire from Upper Nyack, offered his palatial river boat and Lyon picked up the passengers, not charging for the trip.

In addition to being the oldest working river pilot, Lyon was the oldest living Mason, having been a member of the organization for 50 years.

Smithsonian Hotel

1879 ad for Smithsonian Hotel.

The Smithsonian Hotel was a tall 3-story wood structure built on the site of the home of D. D. Smith near the steamboat landing at the base of Burd St. The hotel was renovated in 1875 by David D. and Tunis Smith to accommodate between 50 and 60 boarders. They already knew Lyon from his work on their boats the Isaac Smith and Adelphi. He was hired to manage the hotel because he was well known for his people skills. The post-Civil War period was the heyday for Nyack summer hotels. The Tappan Zee Inn, the Prospect House, and the Pavilion brought hundreds of New Yorkers to Nyack. The Smithsonian touted its river views, nearby boating, fishing, and bathing, salt water air with no miasma, fever, or ague. Ads also bragged that the hotel adhered to temperance principles.

The Smithsonian ran into financial troubles along with the Smiths ‘other enterprises and was sold in foreclosure in 1880. Lyon went back to full-time boat work and the hotel continued on for many years known as Smithsonian Hall, with space for events and offices. The Smithsonian, located approximately where Nyack Seaport is now, burned in 1949.

North River Steamboat Company 

The ferry boat Tappan Zee at the Nyack Dock.

Nyack to Tarrytown ferry service likely first started in 1848 by W. B. Gedney of Nyack and Alfred Lawrence of Tarrytown. Steamboats that ran up and down the Hudson would stop at Tarrytown and Nyack, and passengers and carriages would use these “day liners” to cross from Nyack to Tarrytown, going 1 way in the morning and then the other in the afternoon when the boat headed back upriver.

Isaac, David D., Tunis, and Abram Smith were involved in starting up steamboat service from Nyack. They already owned the largest grocery and dry goods store located near the docks. Tunis mostly ran the store, the other brothers the steamships. Captain Abram Smith appears to have purchased the first steam ferry, named the Daniel Drew in 1853. The next year he purchased the J. J. Herrick, called the Union during the Civil War and then the Bergen. Around 1862, Abram retired and D.D. and Tunis bought the business. Their company built and launched the paddle wheeler Tappan Zee for ferry service in 1874. The boat was of shallow draft so it could manage the many sand bars near the Tarrytown docks. The larger river day liners would offload Tarrytown passengers mid-river, connecting with the ferry. A gangplank would be let down between the boats.

In 1878, the Smith Brothers ran into financial troubles partly due to competition from train service for freight and passengers but mostly from liquidity problems brought on by the bank crisis of 1878. The North River Steamboat Company was formed after prominent New Yorker Alexander M.C. Smith purchased the assets. James Blauvelt was the first president with offices in the Commercial Building on S. Broadway. In all, the company ran 3 boats: the Raleigh for freight service, the Chrystenah as a day liner, and the Tappan Zee as a ferry.

The Rockland

In the spring of 1887, the Tappan Zee caught fire and burned to the waterline in a spectacular night fire at the Nyack docks. A couple men sleeping on board escaped. The company used the Wagner for a period until their new boat, the Rockland, could enter service in 1888. Painted white, the ferry was a propeller-driven steamboat that could carry 100 passengers and many carriages and later cars, yet it was small enough to avoid the many sand bars. The Rockland was a double-decker with 2 pilot houses on top. Chairs and benches were placed around the deck.

Cars lining up for the ferry in 1920.

Transporting cars was a big business for the ferry before the building of the George Washington Bridge. Car fare was $1 for a car with up to 4 people, more for each additional person. Individuals crossed for $0.25 each way. Lyon allowed passengers to ride as many times as they wanted on a single fare. In summer, mothers would take their children for rides all afternoon on hot days. The Rockland completed a run in about 20 minutes, if conditions were right they could make it in 15. Because the ramp was in the back, the ferry would “back” into its loading slip.

Louise Lisener sold candy on the Rockland. Musicians would play on board, usually an accordionist and a violinist playing such tunes as “Santa Lucia” and “Funiculi, Funicula.” The Rockland always had a cat on board, probably hailing from the nearby Smithsonian stable.

Seasonal, Daily, & Emergency Service

People on the frozen Hudson River. Ferry frozen in ice. The Smithsonian is the multi-story building behind the ferry.

The Hudson River froze solid most years and was frozen enough near shore on other years to prevent landing. Ferry service would suspend for the winter, usually some time in December and starting up again in late March or early April. When the river was frozen solid, an ice bridge was used to cross from Nyack to Tarrytown.

In either 1905 or ’06, the Rockland was caught in ice for 3 days between Tarrytown Light and the dock until an ice cutter appeared on Christmas Day. 4 passengers were aboard plus the crew. 2 women slept in the pilot house by a small pot-bellied stove. Lyon rigged up a sled from a lifeboat and ropes the second day and hauled the women ashore.

1916 ad.

The first ferry would depart Nyack docks at 7:30a in the early days. Workers would arrive about an hour earlier to fire up the coal-fed boilers. The ferry would run back and forth all day every hour finally leaving Tarrytown at 7:10p. In summer months, the boat would be hired for excursions upstream, arriving back in Nyack around midnight. Lyon was there for every minute.

Perhaps the most memorable trip for the Rockland was an excursion to NYC harbor for the arrival of Admiral Dewey at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. A 2-day event was held including a boat and automobile parade. Long tables of food were set up on the Rockland. With the tide at her back, the steamboat could make the trip in 2 hours, with tide and wind less than 2 hours. With the tide against her, the trip took 2 ½ hours.

The Rockland would rescue tipped over boaters during the summer months. Once, the boat got an SOS from a derailed freight train on Iona Island. The Rockland was nearby on a moonlight excursion and could hear the crew calling for help. The rail crew had recognized the boat and asked the Rockland to get aid.

The ferry was known to get lost in fog, one time ending up in Piermont instead of Tarrytown. Sometimes the wind was so strong that the boat would bounce around in white-capped waves. Some passengers would ask if they could come down into the engine room to feel safe. Arthur Tompkins, Jr once saved a potential suicide by diving into the water to save her.

Lyon Meets the Rich & Famous

Lyon met many notable people of his day, from Babe Ruth to Horace Greeley. The Rockefellers, Goulds, and Asters would cross from time to time. John D. Rockefeller was known to pass out dimes as souvenirs to passengers. He never gave one to Lyon.

He traveled with several presidents including Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1912, he took Theodore Roosevelt across, then running for a third term on the Bull Moose Party. Lyon told him, “You should have stayed at home. You shouldn’t break up the party.”

The Ferry Wars

Flushing in 1915.

In 1912, the North River Ferry Company was formed to compete with the North River Steamboat Company. They started by taking away the lease of Rockland’s Tarrytown slip and started a new line with a Long Island steamer, the Rye Cliff. It took a month for the Rockland to find a new ferry slip and the ferry wars began. Rye Cliff often got stuck. The new company experimented with several boats before settling on another Long Island steamer, the Flushing, that was painted red.

The red and white boats would race across the river, cutting each other off and competing for passengers. Once, in frustration, the Flushing rammed the Rockland, causing minor damage and loss of the Flushing captain’s license. The first to shore would be the first to board cars and passengers. Hawkers would troll the waiting lines of cars for business. The Flushing became more profitable since it was much bigger, with room for 60 cars.

In February 1920, the Rockland was sent to drydock for repairs in Hoboken but was inadvertently sunk in the harbor when a temporary assistant left a cabin porthole open. The boat was raised and returned to duty and Lyon continued to run it until his death in 1923. The North River Ferry Company went on to acquire the North River Steamship Company the same year retiring the Rockland. It was later sold and went to work in Perth Amboy in 1927. Later it was used as a residence without an engine and boiler.

All Good Things Come to an End

With the opening of the George Washington Bridge in 1931, car service declined on the ferry and in 1941 regular service was discontinued. Small pedestrian ferries ran until 1954.

The cross-river ferry was memorable in its day and even more so with a captain who was personable, singular in appearance, and so consistent that he never missed a day of work as captain. His 72 years of river service is a record that will never be equaled

Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

HRHCare Community Health logoNyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is brought to you by HRHCare and Weld Realty.



Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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